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Illustration: Mountain Man Credit: Billy Alexander

Everything you read online may be a lie.

If you don’t believe me, read Inc. magazine’s opinion piece, “Does Social Media Content Have Any Credibility?”  (spoiler alert: it doesn’t)   The essay points out that there is no quality control for social media or online content, and that social validation is a not a reliable indicator of credibility.

Go back and re-read that last sentence.  Odds are it’s not true because you read it online.  If you were referred to this article from a link on social media, there is a high likelihood nothing I’m writing is true…. but I encourage you to read on anyhow. 

Sour grapes

In Guy Kawasaki’s new book Author Publisher Entrepreneur, he discusses the process of having a book published by a major publishing house.  Kawasaki explains that it takes more than a year to get a typical book published.  A book receives about a month of publicity from the publishing house and then nothing.  Bearing that in mind, the author’s explanation for why published work is more credible than online content doesn’t add up:

“Before the internet age, if you read a nonfiction book or an article in a publication, you could reasonably assume the writer was credentialed, either as a subject matter expert, a journalist, or a commentator.”

What constitutes a credential?  In Nate Silver’s great book The Signal and the Noise, he describes that the most compelling television commentators are the most rigid in their beliefs and are far less accurate in their predictions than people that are more pragmatic.  The fact of the matter is that popularity and the capability to sell books with a month of publicity is far more important to get an esteemed “credential” from a major publishing house.  A tremendously qualified person with an unmarketable idea for a book won’t get published.

Of course there is a qualitative difference between some online authors and others, but guess what?  There is a qualitative difference between published authors as well.

Why discredit online publishing?

There’s a great State Farm Insurance commercial where one of the characters (an attractive woman) proclaims that “they can’t put anything on the internet unless it’s true.”  Then she introduces her date, an unsightly fellow who claims to be a French model.  While this perpetuates the same mythology about online content, it’s also illustrative:

How come comparatively attractive people couple?

Dan Ariely discusses it in his book, Predictably Irrational.  We basically adjust our standards to our level of attractiveness.  But if people believe so many online falsehoods, how come there aren’t more attractive women dating unattractive “French models?”  Or more pertinently, what specific ill-advised actions are people taking because of someone’s internet lies?  The answer is that they’re not.

Online publishing enables a stream-of-consciousness, a timeliness and social validation that is not repeatable by traditional publishing.  Would you rather get SEO insight from a book that was written a year ago, or from Rand Fishkin every Friday?  Would you rather read about social media marketing tests and studies done a year ago (or five) or read about them in near-real-time from Christopher Penn?  Would you rather read Nate Silver’s projections about the Presidential election as new data is received or next year?

You may say that I cherry-picked those bloggers and you’re right:  I did.  I used my judgment to determine who I find the most credible…. and that’s my point.  I’ve also read a lot of hideous books that have been written by published authors.  Thousands of bloggers with an editor, copy-editor and free time could write a much more credible, useful book than a lot of the stuff that gets published by publishing houses.

The real losers

I don’t feel bad for discredited bloggers.  Bloggers as a collective are accustomed to being under-appreciated.  It’s doubtful many people using social media (you know, nearly everyone) will lose sleep that there are people who think they are liars who love lying despite their lying liar-pants catching on fire.

As I read a lot of missives about how Gen Y are enabled and indignant, I can’t help drawing a parallel with those opinions and the “don’t believe anything on the internet” crowd.  After all, what has a twenty-five year old done that warrants listening to her opinion?  What has anyone on social media accomplished that warrants considering what they have to say?  These skeptics aren’t tastemakers, they’re Luddites (albeit Luddites that write for Inc. magazine among other places).

The big shock to these people is going to be Generation Z.  The post-Gen Y generation will have grown up in an environment where their opinion has always been important and considered.  They will have been immersed in technology and will be far more efficient then any generation before because of this experience.  How do you justify not listening to a person who is more efficient or possibly more effective than you?   You can discredit them outright, but they’ll simply go be more efficient and effective someplace that they’ll be heard.  If people choose to discredit everything they see online and in social media, that’s their prerogative.  But advocating for others to follow suit is like advocating for collective obsolescence.

I’m a certified skeptic, but I see an inordinate amount of value in online and social content.  I think that anyone who doesn’t is deluded and antiquated.


Photo Credit

Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty

Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I aspire to give people something to think about rather than tell them what to do. My favorite Google Alert is "social media research," I am increasingly compelled by Gen Z, and I appreciate good writers agnostic of where they write. At one time I was Kred's 12th most influential social media blogger and Klout's most influential person on the topic of David Hasselhoff. Transplant from Seattle living in Cincinnati. Haven't entirely adopted the local sports teams yet.
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty
Jim Dougherty

Good one, Jim. Critical thinking is a skill that needs to go into overdrive when evaluating shared photos and content. I’m always amazed at how many “travel bloggers” post photos with no identifying locations or background information. What happened to research? Yet people seem hungry for as much interesting info. as they can get online. All “content” is not brain food–in fact, most is empty calories.

January 15, 2013, 1:27 AM

Jim, I’ve preached this for a long time. Saying something inherently lacks credibility because you read it online is preposterous. The Internet isn’t a single source; it’s a broad collection of sources. There are credible authors putting out content on the web and there are people just airing their opinions. I like the way David Meerman Scott puts in in “New Rules.” He says the blogosphere is like a conversation you’re having in a local bar. You hear a bunch of people talking about an issue. Based on who’s speaking and what they’re saying, you determine whether or not it makes sense and formulate your own position. We should have the same level of discretion online. We aren’t stupid. Just like in real life, we should weigh out arguments on the web. But they should not be inherently discredited.

I think there’s clearly a bias against content on the web. If someone tells you about a study the read and you ask them where they got it from, they will probably tell you the exact book, journal, or magazine. But, if they read it on the Internet, they won’t tell you the author or the website. They’ll just say they read it on the Internet. That’s tantamount to saying, “I read it in a book.”

January 15, 2013, 7:58 AM

You build up a level of trust with people over time. If you meet someone on the street that tells you something you don’t necessarily believe them, it’s the same online.

January 15, 2013, 8:04 AM
jimdougherty

So true! It’s no different online or offline…. unless you arbitrarily exclude online content! Great point Ian, thank you!

January 15, 2013, 10:19 AM
jimdougherty

Amen, Doug. I suspect that attitudes are changing as people are getting more accustomed to it. Think about how radically digital has changed music: big record labels have doubled down on music with mass appeal and less redeeming value. There’s no reason to think the same isn’t occurring in publishing. The Long Tail of publishing happens online, which is a measure of audience and not of quality. Great insight!

January 15, 2013, 10:25 AM
jimdougherty

Thanks for reading and commenting Ellen! I imagine like anything there is disparate quality with anything – but I’ve also seen a lot of great travel websites… and frightfully so has my wife who conveniently forgets how difficult cross-continental flights are with our kids! :) Cheers!

January 15, 2013, 10:27 AM
jimdougherty

Amen, Doug. I suspect that attitudes are changing as people are getting more accustomed to it. Think about how radically digital has changed music: big record labels have doubled down on music with mass appeal and less redeeming value. There’s no reason to think the same isn’t occurring in publishing. The Long Tail of publishing happens online, which is a measure of audience and not of quality. Great insight!

January 15, 2013, 10:28 AM

Hi Jim,

Great post! I agree that too many people place an emphasis on the idea of traditional vs. digital. When in reality the only true distinctions between the two are distribution and delivery. The idea that one methodology ensures more substantive or more credible material is a blatant lie. Sadly, taste makers as we call them who market this perspective are simply perpetuating the lie.

You’re also right to say that most of us won’t lose sleep. Personally, I just laugh quietly every time a random technology conversation comes up with people who think we’re “just playing on the internet”. They say things like, “TV personality so and so mentioned this product it’s amazing” and then I think “Really? I blogged about that months ago. hmmmm ;) Thanks for such an awesome & honest perspective!

January 18, 2013, 2:57 AM
jimdougherty

Thanks Andrea! Great point also about early adopters – where can you get insight into features three months before traditional media picks it up? It’s ridiculous to arbitrarily diminish online content… unless you like being a laggard!

January 21, 2013, 8:12 PM

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